Each season in the NBA, there are only a handful of teams that end up having a realistic shot at winning the NBA Finals and oddsmakers know that. For this reason, there are typically two or three teams that are close to even odds while the rest end up being longshots. After all, the way that the NBA Playoffs are set up, being an underdog gives you almost no chance as you have to beat the better team in a best-of-seven series.
Still, there have been a few long shots to overcome the odds and not just make it deep into the tournament, but win the entire thing. Here are the five biggest longshots in NBA history to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy as league champions.
Houston Rockets (1993-94)
After the Chicago Bulls won three straight NBA titles, Michael Jordan unexpectedly retired. Oddsmakers weren’t quite sure what to do, and they ended up making many of the NBA teams into longshots since there was no clear-cut team expected to win. The Houston Rockets received +1200 odds to win the title as they were considered the third-best team in the Western Conference.
Equipped with the likes of Sam Cassell, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Otis Thorpe, the Rockets had a lot of potential. Houston secured the two-seed in the Western Conference and got by Golden States, Phoenix, and Utah on their way to the FInals. In seven games, the Rockets finished their underdog story by defeating the New York Knicks and winning the first of their back-to-back titles.
Detroit Pistons (2003-04)
There was one thing for sure about the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, and it was that they played a tough defensive game. Still, they weren’t considered the top team in the Eastern Conference and oddsmakers felt that the “dream team” built by the Los Angeles Lakers would easily defeat any team that came from the East. As a result, the Pistons were given +1500 odds to win the 2004 NBA Finals.
Detroit was the clear-cut second seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs as they finished seven games behind Indiana and seven games ahead of New Jersey. The Pistons dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks, won in seven games against New Jersey, and took care of Indiana in six games. Still a big underdog in the Finals, the Pistons only needed five games to take down Shaq, Kobe, and the L.A. Lakers.
Toronto Raptors (2018-19)
Heading into the 2018-19 NBA season, the Golden State Warriors were expected to repeat as champions while some other surprise teams in the Western Conference popped up. As for the East, Toronto wasn’t given much of a chance to even make the NBA Finals as oddsmakers made them a +1850 longshot to win the NBA title.
That didn’t stop Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors from making waves, and they only needed one game seven to win the title. They defeated Orlando in the first round, Philadelphia in the second (in seven games), then Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals. In six games against the Warriors, the Raptors clinched their first-ever championship with Leonard winning the Finals MVP award.
Dallas Mavericks (2010-11)
The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers were the runaway favorites to meet up in the NBA Finals during the 2010-11 season, especially with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joining forces in Miami and Kobe Bryant leading the Lakers. Dallas was seventh overall, carrying +2000 odds into the season. They played slightly above expectations in the regular season, finishing 57-25.
As the three-seed in the West, the Mavs needed only 21 games to win the championship. They defeated Portland in six games, unexpectedly swept the Lakers, then knocked out Oklahoma City in five games. Facing the Miami Heat, the Mavericks were able to win in six games to give Dirk Nowitzki the MVP award during his only championship win.
Golden State Warriors (2014-15)
It’s hard to think of the Golden State Warriors with Steph Curry ever being an underdog, but that was the case before their dynasty got started. The Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs were expected to meet in the 2015 NBA Finals, with Golden State being a massive +2800 longshot to win it all.
The Warriors quickly showed that they were legitimate, however, finishing with a 67-15 record, 11 games ahead of the second-place Houston Rockets. The Warriors swept New Orleans in the first round, then defeated Memphis (six games) and Houston (five games) to make the NBA Finals. In six games, they defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to claim their first title since 2015 thanks to the unlikely MVP-winner Andre Iguodala.